Breadbasket Case, or, More Wrongs about Buildings and Food (Part 1)

Ukraine’s role in Russian paranoid fantasy proves a cornucopia of Freudian delights.  One of them is present in both the previous discussion of foreign invasion and Sorokin’s outrageous declaration that Russia has been impregnated with (and by) Ukraine.  Rather than the “Window to the West” opened by Peter the Great in the city that shares his name, Ukraine is Russia’s poorly guarded back door, an orifice that renders Russia vulnerable to all manner of unwanted penetration. [1] The rhetoric of Ukrainian “fascism” has formed a discursive, if not domestic, partnership with the moral panic over “gay propaganda”: the Ukrainian “Свідомий”(conscious, self-aware), used as a descriptor of Ukrainian national consciousness is combined in Russian with the slur “sodomites”(содомиты) to form свидомиты, a term of abuse for Ukrainians who do not want a tight connection with Russia.

Ukraine-centered Russian conspiracy theory is preoccupied with boundaries and their violation, with bodily integrity and the dangers of improper consumption. This is conditioned not only by Ukraine’s function as a border, but also by its traditional role as the provider of (Russia’s) food: once the breadbasket of the Russian Empire, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic maintained that role for the Soviet Union, though in a manner that was far more fraught with tension and tragedy. Thus it makes sense that the post-Soviet Russia-Ukraine drama would so often play itself out in alimentary terms. It is a drama that parallels our earlier discussion of television, propaganda, and zombification, in that it is not just about food, but feeding: what might Ukraine be sneaking into Russia’s (political) diet?

Obviously a tad out of date, but still...

Obviously a tad out of date, but still...

While one could choose to look at this problem in terms of the metaphor of disease (“color” revolutions and Maidan are repeatedly castigated in the Russian media as a virus), food is still central. All of twentieth-century Russian-Ukrainian relations fall under the shadow of the Holodomor, the human-made famine that officially killed anywhere from 7 to 10 million people in Ukraine (with unofficial estimates going as high as 12 million). The causes were multiple and still the subject of scholarly disputes, but they clearly include the criminal excesses and incompetence of Soviet collectivization, the state’s refusal to provide famine relief, and, according to most scholars (most famously Timothy Snyder in Bloodlines), the deliberate target of Ukraine. Recognized by the United Nations as genocide, the Holodomor was denied by the Soviet State, while the post-Soviet government of Russia refuses to see the famine as anything other than a tragedy that afflicted the Soviet Union as a whole.  

Decades later, the Soviet Union would still have difficulty feeding itself, reduced to importing grain before President Jimmy Carter declared an embargo in response to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Through no fault of its own, the Ukrainian SSR found itself (along with Byelorussia) embroiled in another food drama in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident: if Ukrainian crops were irradiated, could the rest of the Soviet Union be expected to consume them? (The answer, it turned out, was “yes.”)

Next: Operation Provide Leftovers


[1] A tip of the hat to Eric Naiman, for his inspired riff on Peter's project, and the unforgettable phrase "voracious anus" in the English-language conference-paper version of his article.